Sept. 14 2006 11:04 AM

Event 3: The First 1,000 Words of a Vanity Fair Profile






Gere Shift or Automatic?


By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

       When Dorothy Parker deathlessly observed that "the only 'ism' Hollywood understands is plagiarism" she didn't know the half of it, and she didn't know how lucky she was. Today the one ism Hollywood knows is activism. In happier days, movie stars confined their leisure activities to serial adultery, heavy drinking, or denouncing colleagues as Commies. Then, any star worthy of the name could be judged by the size of his or her swimming pool. Now, any self-respecting motion picture actor- or -ess is judged by the size of his or her Cause.

       Richard Gere has more than one Cause to his name, and Good Causes some of them are. Just as you don't have to be Jewish to like Levy's rye bread, you don't have to be a Buddhist--as Gere notoriously is--to see that what China has done to Tibet is one of the infamies of the past half-century. On this subject, this movie actor is right. He is right to support and befriend the Dalai Lama.

       He was right to heckle secretary of state-turned-Beijing-apologist Dr. Kissinger with, "What about China, Henry?" (Kissinger's response, "I think that Richard Gere is a better actor than he is a political analyst," was a fine case of "tu quoque?" or Freudian projection.) He is obviously right to protest the persecution of tribal peoples in particular, and to support human rights in general.


       So why is that such a plain-right, right-on good guy raises so many hackles? The man has broken no laws, apart from urinating in public, for which he was arrested in 1983. Maybe his trouble isn't so much the odd minor misdemeanor as relentless--and sometimes implausible--worthiness. Listen to him. Meeting the Dalai Lama was "a kind of falling-in-love moment. I felt safe." Or again, "I run. I don't eat red meat. I'm trying to give up fish." No, however it may be with peeing in the streets, Richard Gere is the sort of fellow who PCs you off.

       He turns 50 next August, with two dozen movies behind him, good, bad, and plain awful. The preppy-puppy charm he has traded on, at least to begin with, comes naturally. Dick Gere, as he was known in high school, spent two years at the University of Massachusetts on a gymnastics scholarship. And he likes his ladies pretty, sportive and large-limbed: his wife of four years, Cindy Crawford, apart, they include Diane Von Furstenberg, Sabrina Guinness, and Penelope Milford.

       There have been unkind whispers that Gere may have put the "act" into activism, but not into acting. Which is, as P.G. Wodehouse observed of one of his characters--whose friends said that he was never sober--not only unkind but untrue ("he was indeed frequently sober, sometimes for hours at a time"). Gere may have made more lousy movies than good, but he has now and again given us an inkling of what he can do in front of the camera.

       In American Gigolo, it's true, he showed not so much what he could do as what he had: The 1979 movie was one of the first in which a front-line actor went full-frontally nude. Doubtless as a result, the film became a gay cult classic, to Gere's vexation. Although his Causes include gay and lesbian rights and AIDS research, he has repeatedly insisted that he is straight himself.


       But then you could even say that denial was one of his activisms. He knows he is talked about, and he doesn't like the talking. In 1994, he and Cindy Crawford went to the unusual lengths of taking out a full-page ad in the London Times to deny that their three-year-old marriage was in trouble. They felt it necessary to say--and pay to say--that "we are heterosexual and monogamous and take our commitment to each other very seriously."

       They were fed up with idle speculation about themselves, they said, while "we both look forward to having a family." When they separated a matter of months later, that ad looked like a gratuitous way of adding $30,000 to Rupert Murdoch's coffers. From time to time Gere has also (though not through newspaper ads) denied rumors that he has an affinity with cute furry rodents. We naturally accept this denial, though it might be just as well if he didn't add animal rights to his list of Causes.

       And yet, and yet: If American Gigolo showed that he could, in a phrase a recent British film has popularized, go the full monty, or get his kit off, as the Brits also say, Internal Affairs showed that he could genuinely get inside a role. His performance as the corrupt cop stays in the memory still. He has plainly not been lucky in his Hollywood era, which lacks the unself-consciousness of the golden age. Fifty years ago he could have found a niche between Clark Gable (without quite the dash) and Bogie (without quite the earthy Stimmung). But today, in a movie industry where he has three times taken over pictures developed for John Travolta, you have to feel sorry for him. Almost.

       Again, while his commitment to Buddhism shouldn't be something to mock him for, it illustrates Gere's problem. "He's a charming guy" according to Sidney Lumet, who directed him in Power, and whose opinion might actually be worth something. "Richard has beautiful technique. But when an actor is as beautiful as he is, it's difficult to be taken seriously."

       Alas, he does want to be taken seriously. Enemy and friend, detractor and admirer, could none of them accuse Gere of having an over-developed sense of the ridiculous. Once more, listen to him: "Happiness releases good energy into the universe. ... There is an emotional congruency I have with gymnastics. ... I think there is a touch of the gypsy in all of us. Some people do it in dreams. Some people do it in life. I think it's here."

       This sort of stuff isn't the ism in plagiarism, or activism, it demands Joan Crawford's profound question: "Whom is kidding whom?"

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Randlords, and is a contributor to British publications too numerous to mention.